Category Archives: Feelings

“It Moved Me” – Emotions and Art

Emotions and art are deeply connected

It is probably safe to say that emotions and art have been connected since the very beginning. I doubt the cave paintings at Lascaux  were made or viewed without any reactions by their creators or other community members. Whether they were created as mythic storytelling, depictions of particular hunts, or something completely different, we can imagine that, like us, the early artists and viewers felt something while looking at them. Perhaps they felt emotions of fear, or pride in the hunt, desire for status, or appreciation and gratitude for bounty. So what’s with the connection between emotions and art and the idea of movement?

What’s moving, emotions or me?

What do we mean when we say something “moved” us? We use the expression about emotions and art all the time… a piece of music or a poem is moving; a film moved us, sometimes “to tears.” But I’ve been musing about a couple of different ways to look at this idea of movement.  What is moving, precisely?

When I read a particularly poignant book, for example Love You Forever by Robert Munsch.  I, like the author himself, immediately choke up with  emotions of sadness and an almost indefinable ache – it feels a bit like longing – even though I have not yet lost either a child nor a parent. It “moves” me to a place of being able to feel what the author felt. The movement for me is from my

status quo, whatever it was before I picked up the book, into a new emotional state, a new place to experience life from, one I haven’t known before.

Or how about this? When I read that book (or my other favourite for accessing the bittersweetness of life, Peach and Blue  I can think of it another way. Through their love story I’ve opened the door to allowing an emotion to move through me. I am still who and where and how I am, but I’m letting the feeling enter, and I can let the feeling leave.

So what’s the difference?

Well, aside from giving me the chance to look at those two moving books again (and I could add a zillion other books, works of art, movies, etc. for any emotion you care to name, but then we’d be here all day and the dog wouldn’t get walked!) …

I don’t think one way of experiencing emotions and art is better than the other, but I do see them differently. When I’m the one being moved, for me it’s like I’ve been transported into a role. I feel something from the inside out, and I’m inhabiting that state of mind and heart. It puts me in touch with emotions I might never have known before. Or, even if I have, I’m feeling them from another perspective. When I use art to experience emotions in this way, I think I can say I’m learning a lot about empathy.

When the emotions have been moved through me it feels different. I remain in a bigger sense, more rooted in my own experience. Sometimes it’s because the feelings are ones that I’ve had before, and what moved them into/through me is a reminder of them. But not always. It’s more likely to happen when I’m in a grounded place, or you might even say in a more mindful place, where I’m practicing the habit of witness consciousness and recognizing that while I may have emotions, I don’t have to be identified with them. It’s the difference between believing “I am so angry,” and “I feel anger within me in this moment.”

Letting emotions move on through

Have you ever noticed how kids seem to be able to allow emotions to move on through them? The temper tantrum might be an almighty storm, rocking them right onto the floor with kicking feet and screaming lungs, but when it’s over it’s over. They’re already asking “what’s for supper?” while Mom is holding her heart, still breathing fast, and wondering if anyone would notice if she just walled herself and the family up until the child turns 21. It’s not so much that kids have anything like a “witness consciousness” going on – I don’t think most do. But they do seem to have some ability that we gradually lose as we grow older. Teens and adults hang on to emotions, to pull them out of our pockets to savour later, or to think them over for a good long time in the hope that they will reveal to us the secret of never having to feel that way again.

Choices

Like I said, I don’t think there’s one right way to experience emotions through art. But knowing that there’s not just one gives us some choices. Maybe you find it healing to watch a sad movie that you know you cry at every time. This can be really helpful especially if we actually feel like an emotion is stuck within us. Allowing the art to stimulate the sadness that is already within us, perhaps unexpressed or keeping us feeling tight, can let the sadness move through us more completely.

Or perhaps I might feel immobilised myself – like I am in a rut or habit of a way of feeling or perceiving my situation. Most especially when I’m feeling flat, this is when I find a trip to an art gallery really helpful. I can stand in front of many different pictures, one after the other, and allow myself to be moved into different states with each one. I can “try on different hats” in a way. What did the painter feel while he was making this one? What led that sculptor to create her piece out of that material? Those aren’t just thinking questions, but feeling ones as well. I can notice what my body and heart do in response to the art, and allow myself to get carried along into a new experience. I can then ask, what do I want to do, now that I can see things this way? It’s a way to create action in my life.

So – what moves you? What is moved within you? Share your thoughts on my Facebook page

And if you’re yearning for movement, wanting to make sure that you make the most of your life so that you can stop waiting for “someday” and start creating a fulfilling NOW, contact me for a free consultation. 

 

We’re All Mortal Here

Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

is what I’m reading right now. It’s a fabulous, humane book that looks at what the medical field is missing when all it focuses on is extending our lives. I highly recommend it if you happen to be mortal. Hmm. Any takers?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll no doubt have already figured out that I have a fairly intense interest in the subject of death. Usually this shows up in the grief arena, but it’s not just the “after-effects” of death that I’m concerned with. I’m sure my nearest and dearest have wondered often enough why I seem to be wired this way. But really, why is it that something that every single human being has in common with each other is so taboo? Nothing comes close to the level of shunning that death gets as a cocktail party conversation. Like most of my colleagues in hospice, bereavement, and other death-focused professions, I’ve often received comments like, “wow, you must be really wonderful to do that kind of work, bless you!”  It’s as if dealing with death and grief is somehow reserved for saints and the exceptional, rather than being as common and un-exceptional as – well, dust – to which we all return. This comment often comes right before the person’s eyes slide off of mine and start to look for the wine table. For some reason it’s not a very lively conversation opener.

Despite the fact that we’re ALL going to die, very few of us live as though that is true, and very few of us spend much time at all talking about it. Yet I don’t believe for a minute that no one is interested. Given a quiet room, some privacy, and a listening ear, I find that most people will engage in the conversation, and even eagerly, when they realize that I’m not going to turn the other way.

Let’s talk about being mortal for a minute

You’d think that the awareness of our inevitable death would create some kind of urgency in us to do something meaningful with our lives. And on an individual basis, sometimes it does. You probably know people in your own life, or not very far outside your circle of family and friends, who don’t need the added incentive of a terminal diagnosis or a serious accident to get them to focus on what’s important. But on a day-to-day basis, really, we let an awful lot get in the way of living our lives fully. It takes letters like the one Holly Butcher wrote  before she died at 27, to give most of us a kick in the motivational muscles to think about or talk about how we want to live our mortal lives, or how we want to approach our deaths.

As I age, stepping ever closer to my own death, and watching friends and colleagues care for their aging relatives, I find that I’m less frightened of having these conversations. Or maybe I’m just less patient with the fear that I do have! In what turned out to be one of the sweeter moments in my relationship with my parents, I invited them a few weeks ago to talk with me about what they thought would be important to them at the time of their death. We talked about what did and didn’t frighten them, and what kinds of support they’d want to have, and what felt unnecessary. I hope the conversation continues. It’s not a one-talk kind of subject in any case, and I need to tell them of my own thoughts and wishes – there are no guarantees that we will die “in order,” after all.

Despite that conversation, and all the others I have with clients, I occasionally appall myself with the realization that I still let the fear of death, or of the injuries and accidents that remind me someone I love is mortal, control me. Just yesterday, after our thin-skinned greyhound bounced Tigger-ishly into a sharp corner of our wooden banister, I held my hand over what I was certain was a deep gash in my dog’s side, afraid to move it in case seeing it would mean that he needed stitches. Seriously. I watched myself think this ridiculous thought, feeling the reluctance to move, even while I knew that I was being completely irrational.

My fear of what might be stopped me choosing to be aware of reality.

If it had been a more serious injury, my delay would not have been helpful. Luckily, the skin held, barely. That episode humbled and reminded me that it’s not all that long ago that I was avoiding conversations around do-not-resuscitate orders and medically assisted dying. I’m no stranger to the “If I don’t talk about it, it’s not real” phenomenon. Along with our uniquely human consciousness of our own death, we seem to be blessed and cursed with an almost limitless capacity, in our fear, to deny it.

Certainly we have more fun on the zip-line rides and bungy-jumps of life when we indulge in a little reasonable denial. And awareness, without acceptance and taken to an extreme, can invite terror and anxiety. But is denial what we want for ourselves, or for the ones we love, when it comes to knowing what we really want out of our lives and how we want to meet our deaths?

Here is what I wish for myself. In all mystical traditions across the globe, there seems to be an understanding that becoming more fully aware of and accepting of one’s own death enriches one’s participation in life. I want to commit myself to this practice of open awareness once again. I don’t want to keep my hand over the wound, to blind myself to what is necessary.

Life and death are of supreme importance.     

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.    

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.

 –Zen night chant as quoted in Being With Dying, by Joan Halifax

 

Mindfulness: Reflections on an Emerging Practice

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has emerged over the past couple of years as a major buzzword in both mental health and spirituality. Various forms of meditation have existed for centuries as a vital element in just about every form of spiritual and religious life across all cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn was probably the first westerner to introduce us to the physical and mental health benefits of attuning our attention to the present moment, without judgment. In his words:

 Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments — not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skillful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.  (From this website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/faq)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken a greater and greater place in my life as I have matured. I first encountered meditation in my studies of world religions in university in the 80’s. I embraced it at the time as a way to reduce some of the stress of my perfectionism. It didn’t hurt that many of the guided meditations I participated in were also meant to evoke pleasant visions and experiences of spiritual connectedness.

My mindfulness practice began with curiosity.

Through the years I continued to explore. I have practiced the body-centered mindfulness of yoga, the centering prayer of the ancient Christian tradition, and attempted to empty my mind according to some branches of Buddhism. I was searching for a way to feel whole, free, and deeply connected.

As a young counsellor, I found myself teaching my clients meditation as a way to lessen their anxiety or stress. When I became a parent, mindfulness showed up in my preparations for childbirth and guided meditation became a part of bedtime rituals for my young children when they had a hard time falling asleep. I wasn’t disciplined in a daily way, but it was always there in the background.

 And then, somewhere along the way, my eclectic practice dried up completely. I can’t place exactly when it happened. I just find, looking back over the tapestry of my history, that there is a hole in the weave, a place where the mindfulness thread broke.

Suffering brought mindfulness back to me.

For a number of years my family went through a period of deep disconnection – from our own selves and from each other. Our marriage broke down. We, and our children, suffered the confusion, despair, and anxiety that such a rupture can create. In our individual and family healing work, each of their stories is their own. The story that is mine to tell is that my healing came largely from observing my son as he took on a dedicated practice of compassionate mindfulness.

 I sometimes say mindfulness saved his life.

While that over-simplifies the story, on a feeling-level, for me, it is absolutely true. I watched him gradually transform from someone I no longer recognized to a more peaceful, loving, and happy person as he went from learning the basics to studying the deeper philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That process reawakened my own desire to engage in the practice again, and in the process, brought me back to my life too.

 My longing for a deeper wholeness and connection to the true Self that lies behind and beyond my habits of personality has returned more strongly than ever. I am assured that this is an entirely “age-appropriate” development! In our second half of life we look beyond the concerns that preoccupied us during our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Meaning eclipses success in our hierarchy of needs. And where else can we find meaning, joy, life, and connection other than in the present moment? Our past is gone and unchangeable. The future is not yet, and is far, far less controllable than we thought when we were younger.

 While I’ll probably never give up my eclectic tendency to explore the many avenues and traditions of mindfulness, I have seen first-hand how powerful a regular practice is, and this knowledge supports me in setting down roots in a morning routine of sitting meditation. Not to mention, it gives me lots to talk about with my kids!

 This winter I invite you to join me in an exploration of several mindfulness paths that intersect with the world of art. You never know, one of them might just fit you perfectly! On Saturday February 3rd I am offering Slow Threads, a workshop on meditative stitching. And on Monday, February 26th there will be an evening workshop on making and using prayer beads from several traditions: To Hold A Prayer In My Hand. See the Workshops page for information on all Open Hearth Studio group offerings. I hope also to have an online Basics of Mindfulness course up and running by the fall!

‘Tis the Season for…..Holiday Stress?

It happens every year: the decorations go up, and so does the holiday stress.

Even if the decorations aren’t in your house, even if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday, it can happen. Lots of lists show up at this time of year, suggesting ways to handle the holiday stress. And I don’t disagree with most of them; it’s just that they rely on a “do’s and don’ts” formula, with a disclaimer to “do what feels right to you.” A big problem is that, for many folks, figuring out “what feels right” is hardest during times of stress and competing demands.

 Knowing our values is one thing that can help. We generally feel happiest and most fulfilled when we are acting in line with what is most important to us.

But sometimes our own values can be in competition with one another.

As an example, I value love, kindness, beauty, and self-care, among other things. They are important to me, and I get satisfaction from making them part of my life. Some holiday options that relate to these values are getting together with people I love, doing nice things for others, having pretty lights and a decorated tree, and spending a whole lot of time in my pajamas, asleep or reading on a couch (or, to be honest, sleeping on a couch with an unread book on my face.)

 Obviously it’s going to be hard to do all these things all at the same time. It won’t be safe for me to climb a tree and put up lights in my pajamas! And lying on the couch won’t be as fulfilling an experience without the glow of a decorated tree, or without the company of my family.

 In an ordinary year, I usually find a way to fit most of these things into my life so that there is a balance. (I admit it, the balance leans more towards pajamas and couch time. I’m ok with it.)

But some years it’s been nearly impossible.

When I’ve been out of my mind with worry about a family member’s health, suddenly my patience – with other people’s needs, or with other people’s opinions about how to put up the tree – has gone way down.

 If you’re in the middle of a time of stress that comes from more than the season itself, like dealing with a death, financial worries, or a big change, I’m sure you will have noticed similar changes. The hard part is that usually our values themselves don’t change. We still want to be kind, generous, comfortable, and surrounded by beauty. We still want to make choices that reflect our value for homemade instead of bought, our care for the environment or our commitment to social justice. And we still want our holiday preparations or activities to reflect those values.

And that’s where the holiday stress multiplies, and guilt has a chance to creep in.

So what’s possible in that kind of situation? I think a bottom-line, first principle to follow is the same rule the flight attendants quote before the airplane takes off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping the person next to you.” It’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish anything for someone else if you’re exhausted. If authenticity or honesty is important to you, being clear with others about how you’re really doing will be an action in line with your values.

Here’s where “just do what feels right” isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

Because it might not feel right to look after yourself. You’ll probably feel wrong about neglecting what you see as your duties. You’ll feel bad or sad about missing out on some of what you usually really enjoy. This sounds like bad news right? Like a no-win situation. But I truly don’t see it that way. Sometimes knowing what’s right (what’s in line with our deeper values) can give us the strength and grace to tolerate the harder feelings.

If we can bring the value of compassion to this question, then I think the whole picture changes.

Softening our hearts toward ourselves, leaning into what hurts about where we’re at, softens our hearts all around. We gain perspective and grow compassion for other people’s suffering too.

If I can accept that I’m exhausted, grieving, sick, or stressed, and that I’m going to feel short-changed and sad about letting go of some of the more stressful holiday preparations in order to take care of myself, then I’m at a lower risk of throwing a tantrum while trying to make things perfect for the kids.

 If I can see, accept, and take care of my own stress, sadness, and anxiety, I can help the kids to accept theirs. We can learn together how to soothe what hurts. And it’s not just kids – the same thing goes for partners, aging parents, and anyone else we share our lives with.

 Beginning the honest conversation about what’s really going on for us can be the most valuable holiday gift of all.

 I’d love to hear what values guide you in your holiday decisions. Do you struggle with some of them conflicting with each other when you’re feeling low or under stress? You can comment below, or on my Facebook page, or drop me a line! And of course, if you need some help clarifying what’s most important to you, or managing the realities of bereavement, caregiving, or major life transitions, I’m here to help. You can contact me HERE.